Innovative Archival Websites: PhilaPlace

Have you ever walked through an old neighborhood in your city and wished you knew more about its history and the stories of the people who lived there? Although not yet possible for most cities, Philadelphians can access and contribute to an interactive multimedia website that actively records and shares the history of the city's neighborhoods and communities. PhilaPlace provides a place for users to map records and stories onto the buildings, streets and neighborhoods of Philadelphia. For me, the most exciting feature is an interactive Google map with multiple pins that indicate where contributors have written entries and/or submitted accompanying images, videos or audio files about a specific place. Users can browse the map, take a virtual tour, or search for places and topics, ranging from transportation to verbal and artistic expression.

The site was created by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), a special collections library with extensive archival holdings, in partnership with the City of Philadelphia Department of Records and the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. PhilaPlace was born out of a grant received by the HSP to develop neighborhood history tours. The tours, created in collaboration with community members, focused on two areas that historically were immigrant and working class neighborhoods. Through this process, a divide between younger and older audiences became apparent. Where older audiences preferred a “guided experience,” younger audiences wanted to explore the neighborhoods for themselves.[1] This website, which engages with both types of users, was the HSP’s response to the division within their intended audience.

As an innovative outreach practice, PhilaPlace encourages community involvement, engages with a wide audience, and makes the holdings of the HSP relevant and visible to the members of the community it serves. Although the project is firmly rooted in historical interpretation, it allows users to engage with (representations of) primary sources and fosters a sense of online community. Community members are encouraged to participate by commenting on blog posts and submitting their own stories and records related to life in Philadelphia. The website also allows for communication and collaboration between HSP staff and contributors. In addition to mapping historic and contemporary voices to the topography of the city, changes from development, gentrification and the passage of time are documented and made visible online. In terms of educational outreach, a section for grade 6-12 teachers includes resources and activities that correspond to the state curriculum.

It is also possible to search or browse over 2,000 digitized records by neighborhood, topic, record type, and contributor (HSP, partners or visitors). The custom website is the front-end to an impressive CollectiveAccess content management system. Each item includes a description, information and links to its related neighborhood, story, collection and contributing institution, topics and tags. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing and well organized, the website’s navigability and welcoming interface design ensure accessibility and approachability.

The site includes historic and contemporary records and accounts in an ongoing, evolving project that is reflective of the evolving nature of the city itself. It is easy to lose yourself down a rabbit hole of related links and interesting stories. I encourage everyone to set aside some time to go check it out. Even if you are not a Philadelphian, its a fun way to virtually experience and learn about a city’s history from the perspective of its families and communities.


[1] "About PhilaPlace." PhilaPlace: Sharing Stories from the City of Neighborhoods. Accessed March 1, 2015.

N.B.: An earlier version of this blog post was written for ARST 540: Archival Public Services, March 2015.

To cite this post (Chicago Style):

Parker, Marisa. “Innovative Archival Websites: PhilaPlace.” The Family Archivist's Notebook (blog). July 20, 2015.